Since the NCAA began tracking team defensive statistics, only one program has led the nation in total defense more often than TCU.
With a struggling offense, TCU will rely on its defense heavily Saturday when a surging Texas Longhorns team comes to Amon G. Carter Stadium for the first time in nearly 20 years.
TCU has finished with the nation’s best defense five times. All five of those times (2000, 2002, 2008, 2009, 2010) have come since Gary Patterson took over as head coach in 2000.
Patterson was hired at TCU with a reputation as a strong defensive coach, teaching a unique style of defense: the 4-2-5.
In football lingo, the 4-2-5 means a team lines up with four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. Unlike a traditional 4-3 defense, TCU plays with one fewer linebacker and an extra safety.
Patterson calls his defense a versatile one, a scheme he learned from a number of places.
“To be honest, it’s a hybrid,” he said. “I mean I learned the eight man front from Boots Donnelly at Middle Tennessee State…When I went to UC-Davis, I learned how to play a five man secondary instead of playing outside linebackers. We learned our slide package from the old Texas Tech staff with Spike Dykes. Learned the zone blitz, two-deep shell from Marvin Lewis.”
For years, Patterson’s teams were successful while playing with the players that Texas and Texas A&M did not want. Patterson succeeded with lesser talent but schemes that enabled that lesser talent to succeed.
“I like to go places that have [inferior] players, but still get it done. Going places where they win schematically, we learn a lot. The way we’ve adapted the 4-2-5, now it has 4-3 concepts against two back teams. It has three down linemen to play against [spread] teams. We’ve adapted the 4-2-5 to where we can play all the way to Air Force and the triple option.”
Patterson said the key to his defense’s deception is “multiplicity but simplicity.” Giving the opposing offense the appearance of a myriad of formations, but reacting simply from each.
While TCU’s offense continues to struggle, Patterson’s defense is on its way to another successful season in 2013. Patterson’s defense ranks 19th in the nation in total defense (through October 19), and they lead the Big 12 in both sacks and interceptions.
“This is probably the best we’ve ever [had],” Patterson said of his secondary that features All-American Jason Verrett and veterans like free safety Elisha Olabode and strong safety Sam Carter.
Young players continue to step up along the defensive line and at the linebacker position. Sophomore Terrell Lathan is tied for the team lead in sacks, and against Kansas, linebacker Paul Dawson had the third most tackles in a game (17) of any player Patterson has ever coached.
His defenses are able to give opposing offense a variety of looks while keeping schemes simple for his own defense.
To study Patterson’s defense, you separate it into two sections. The five man secondary has their own responsibilities and the four lineman and two linebackers combine for another set of responsibilities.
The secondary operates independent of the front six, and much of the defense is designed to allow safeties to make the tackle or make the play.
The field is split in half with the free safety responsible for one half and the weak side safety responsible for the other half. By dividing the field in half, Patterson is able to simplify how his defense reacts to an opposing team’s formation.
The 4-2-5 uses a significant amount of man-to-man coverage that is often accompanied by a two-deep shell by the free and weak safety. A two-deep shell refers to the free and weak safeties‘ coverage. They cannot allow opposing receivers to beat them on deep routes designed to get behind the defense.
Verrett, one of the best coverage cornerbacks in the country, fits the TCU defense well because he is able to chase receivers all over the field. Verrett’s speed and fluidity are his biggest assets.
Also, TCU loves to go into a coverage where the cornerbacks are aligned in man-to-man with no safeties to help them from getting beat deep (called 0 cover). From 0 cover, TCU can use its safeties and linebackers to blitz in a myriad of ways. Gary Patterson’s creative zone blitzing schemes are one of the many secrets to success in his defense. By watching long-time NFL coach Dick LeBeau, Patterson said he has learned a great deal about the key components of a zone blitzing scheme.
The entire TCU defense is built on speed. TCU has speed at every position, and speed is one of the assets that the TCU defense uses to stop the run.
The players with the most responsibilities in Patterson’s defense are the three safeties.
“We try to force everything to where our safeties can make the play,” Patterson said.
Depending on the play call, the safeties have to communicate with both the defensive line and/or linebackers.
For example, TCU runs a package that is common to most 4-2-5s called the slide package. For the sake of this example, assume the offense is lined up with two running backs, one tight end and two receivers (21 personnel). In the slide package, the weak safety plays the role of the backside linebacker and communicates to the other two linebackers the slide call. The two linebackers will slant to the tight end side, and the strong safety plays close to the line outside the tight end.
Again, the key to the defense is simplicity. With a simple call, TCU gets lined up correctly without needing extensive communication.
Shown in the first picture in the slideshow is TCU’s defense lined up in a slide package, the key player is the weak safety (circled) who has communicated with the linebackers about the slide call. While the free safety is lined up nine yards off the line of scrimmage, he has run stopping responsibilities.
The weak safety must make the play if the running back cuts back to the near side.
While it looks unconventional, such a scheme is how Gary Patterson’s defenses have become the stingiest run defense since 2000, allowing just 92.3 yards rushing per game.
The front six
“We’ve been good this year getting a pass rush,” Patterson said earlier this season. “Some of that is because of the secondary, but also our defensive tackles have gotten a great push up the middle, so the quarterback could not step up in the pocket.”
By removing a linebacker from the field, TCU adds another safety. While that safety may not be as big as a linebacker, he represents another player on the field that can run with the great athletes in the Big 12.
Because the TCU defense is built on speed, it has been effective defending the spread offenses in the Big 12 that are predicated on speed.
Despite taking a linebacker off the field, the 4-2-5 is designed to stop the run. The cornerbacks and safeties are responsible for not getting beat deep, but they also are responsible for playing a pivotal role in stopping the run.
A number system is used to describe where the defensive line aligns itself on different occasions. For example, when the offense lines up with one tight end, a common call is “liz.” which tells the defensive tackle that he will line up on the outside shoulder of the strong-side or tight-end side guard. Meanwhile, a liz call tells the defensive end that he will line up on the inside shoulder of tight end in a seven technique.
In Patterson’s defense, the nose guard and defensive tackle have different responsibilities. The nose guard is the player that often handles double teams and lines up on one shoulder of the center. Those players can flip sides depending on how Patterson wants to align his front.
Patterson is able to confuse offensive linemen with an array of stunts with his front four. In 2013, TCU has had success getting pressure with both its defensive tackles and defensive ends. Since 2007, TCU is tied for second in the nation for the most games with three or more sacks (43).
The key is that offenses are unable to read what the defense is going to do. While most defenses react to offenses, Patterson’s defenses are often the ones surprising the offense.
“We forces the offense to move laterally,” Patterson said. “It’s one of our secrets to success.”
In the second photo in the slideshow, the 4-2-5 is forced to defend a quick screen, something the defense has done successfully since Patterson’s arrival. By deploying an additional safety to the field, the defense plays wider and is able to corral the player catching the screen.
Sam Carter, number 17, is lined up out wide with safety Elisha Olabode playing over the top. Coming from the inside is linebacker Marcus Mallett. Meanwhile, Kevin White is matched up on the receiver lined up on the outside.
In the third photo in the slideshow, Kansas lines up with two running backs and three receivers (20 personnel).
Defensive end Terrell Lathan is lined up one step away from the tackle in a loose five technique. He will match up with the running back coming out of the backfield.
Cornerback Jason Verrett, now playing like a safety, and safety Chris Hackett are playing a deep zone, guarding the receivers who run deep routes. Linebackers Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet play zone coverage in the middle of the field.
Because of the formation in which Kansas aligned itself, TCU was able to play with eight men in close to the line of scrimmage but still defend against the pass. By dropping Lathan into coverage (see the fourth photo in the slideshow), TCU is able to disguise its defense. Meanwhile Sam Carter comes on a blitz from the top of the screen. Rushing four while disguising coverage, TCU again embodies what Patterson calls “multiplicity but simplicity.”
Against passing teams, Patterson often uses his nickel package. If an offense runs a formation with one running back and four wide receivers (10 personnel) or empty (five receivers), Patterson can take a linebacker off the field to play with another safety. Sophomore Derrick Kindred serves as Patterson’s extra safety in the nickel package.
The nickel package looks like a 4-1-6, but it is still effective at stopping the run. Line movements and blitz packages confuse the offensive line, enabling a team playing with just one linebacker to still fare well against a rushing attack.
By continually getting one more player to the point of attack than the offense has blockers, TCU has consistently been able to stop the run no matter how the opposing offense chose to line up.
“That’s been one of our secrets,” Patterson said. “We get one more player to the point of attack than the offense does.”
For years, Patterson learned from others. Now people are learning from him.
Multiplicity but simplicity. It’s a multi-faceted scheme that has simply produced one of the nation’s best defenses over the last 13 years.
A 4-2-5 primer: A guide to Gary Patterson’s defensive scheme:
This is a glossary of the football terms used throughout the article. Refer to these definitions if there is any confusion.
4-2-5 – a defense that plays with four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs.
4-3 – a defense that plays with four defensive linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs
Two deep shell – denotes a defense that plays with two deep safeties that guard against receivers running deep routes
Spread offense – an offense that utilizes multiple receiver packages that is designed to spread out defenses and get the ball to fast players in the open field
Weak safety – the safety that is added in the 4-2-5 that plays the weak side of a formation.
0 cover – a coverage with no safeties to help on deep throws
21 personnel – an offensive formation that lines up with one tight end and two receivers.
Slide package – a defensive call involving the linebackers and weak safety
A stunt – in football terminology, it describes crossing your defensive linemen to confuse the offensive line
Strong side – the strong side of an offense is the side that has more linemen (or a tight end) on that side.
Nose guard – the defensive lineman that normally lines up over the center
10 personnel – an offensive formation that lines up with one running back and four wide receivers
Nickel package – a defensive alignment that uses a sixth defensive back and plays with just one linebacker. Safety Derrick Kindred is the “nickelback” for TCU.